Musical Chaos

Musical representation is a woolly topic. We all know that music can move us, both emotionally and physically; it can also stimulate our intellects. But how are specific images encoded, sans words, in the language of sound? How can music imitate physical movement, abstract concepts, places?

On the level of bodily experience, certain sounds translate into certain images on account of the metaphoric systems we unconsciously use to make sense of them. For instance, when soundwaves gets narrower, we perceive that the pitch is going “up”; when the waves get wider, we hear them as going “down.” These designations, of course, are culturally and historically based (and may have a lot to do with notation) – not everyone maps sounds onto vertical space (up/down). For example, the Suyá of Brazil conceptualize pitches in terms of the metaphors of “young” (high) and “old” (low); others around the world think of pitch as “light” and “heavy,” etc. In the West, the metaphor of up/down is so reified in our musical thinking that it can be put to service in the construction of musical representations.* Moving “up” in range, then, can be equated to a host of experiences and concepts, such as spiritual transcendence.

Similarly, “madrigalisms” work on the level of bodily experience by imitating emotional and physical sensations. For instance, the word “trembling” might be set to a trill, which sonically conjures the act of physically trembling; weeping (“piangendo,” a common madrigal trope) would find its analog in vocal gestures that mimic the sighing, deflated spasms of crying. Sound-body mapping is central to the musical embodiment of these physical states.

But when you get beyond bodily experience, musical representation becomes a bit trickier. If music is “organized sound,” then how does one go about representing chaos, the very opposite of order and organization? A host of composers have tackled this question over the years and, unsurprisingly, the translations vary widely according to aesthetic sensibility and time. Haydn’s Creation features a particularly well-known instantiation of musical chaos: it begins with a forceful unison, then gradually the threads wind their way through different key areas, often chromatically, in search of a home key and the stability of tonal procedures. As Tovey observed, “tonality is Haydn’s musical Cosmos” (II, 634). Indeed, this opening passage still packs a wildly expressive punch. The defiance of tonal expectations and subversion of the “natural” magnetism of leading tones provides Haydn with a potent musical strategy for representing chaos.

As a counterpoint to Haydn’s point, I’ll close with a very different musical portrayal of elementary formlessness. Wayne Shorter’s “Chaos,” from his underrated 1965 album The All Seeing Eye, uses jagged, dissonant phrases and – fittingly enough – free improvisation to reference inchoate cosmological states. Shorter’s chaos does not implicate tonality per se, but rather goes against the regular, periodic harmonic structures of traditional jazz. Both Haydn and Shorter, then, sought a portrait of disorder in the subversion of the musical systems that served as the syntactical baseline for their respective styles.

* A couple of good books on this: Lakoff/Johnson – Metaphors We Live By and Philosophy in the Flesh; Mark Johnson – Body in the Mind; Lawrence Zbikowski – Conceptualizing Music; Thomas Clifton – Music as Heard; Peter Kivy – Introduction to a Philosophy of Music


Rule-Breaking and Music Analysis

One of their [compositional norms] main uses—and purposes—is revealed precisely in departures from them…. In other words, norms are not laws that must be adhered to simply for the sake of coherence or intelligibility, although that is their primary purpose. Absolutely unchallenged “normality” is perhaps the most boring mode of discourse. One rarely finds it in Haydn, or in any imaginative or interesting composer. Rather it is the existence of norms that allows departures to become meaningful—and thereby expressive. In that sense, rules are made to be broken. [Vol. II, 532-533]

And yet our system of analysis is built around the activity of noticing similarities—not deviations—in different works. What would an alternative procedure of analysis look like?

Haydn, Exoticism, and the Sublime

Upon hearing the second movement of Haydn’s “Military” Symphony (No. 100), one critic wrote of the “hellish roar of war increasing to a climax of horrid sublimity!”[1] It is difficult to fathom that this polite, classical symphony could be considered “hellish” and “horrid” sounding, conditioned as we jaded moderns are to music of a far more hellish affective character. Once you’ve heard Beethoven’s 9th, Götterdämmerung, The Rite of Spring, and 95% of new music since 1920 – not to mention the popular music spawn of hell, death metal – it is hard not to hear Haydn’s symphony as tame, even bordering on quaint. Have our ears changed that much in the intervening 200+ years since the Military Symphony debuted to rollicking success? In this regard, it has. The musical representation of fear, war, terror, and the enemy – what our 18th century reviewer called “horrid sublimity” – has morphed considerably from the contained Enlightenment aesthetic to today’s (post-)modern ethos, influenced as it is by expressionism, psychological realism, and Artaudian cruelty. Listening to Haydn’s symphony vividly demonstrates the historical variability of musical signs.

The first movement of the Military Symphony features a light, galloping rhythmic pattern (long-short-short) that is all energy, momentum, and drive. Affectively, the opening still carries strong connotations of a rousing adventure; it brings to mind “William Tell” and the “action music” sequences of the silent film era, conjuring images of square-jawed, bright-eyed men racing into the horizon on trusted steeds. There is a martial quality here as well, though not as blatant as in the next movement, which gives Symphony No. 100 its “Military” appellation.

As the allegretto opens, we get a sense that Haydn has eased back on the accelerator; while the first movement is full of motion and charge, this one begins with a moderately slow tempo and a dainty melody set to a dance-like rhythm. The theme is perfectly symmetrical, the very model of classical balance, and it conforms exactly to expectations; cadences are in the right places and harmonies move from one to the other in an orderly, predictable procession. Haydn is well known for his musical humor and his love of rhythmic tricks (think the “Surprise” Symphony, for instance), but there’s nothing at all unexpected about this opening. It is a portrait of musical civility and grace. And then come the Turks.

At 1:43, the C major of the placid opening is suddenly twisted into minor and the full ensemble enters forte with the opening material in the minor mode. There’s a Jekyll and Hyde element to this abrupt shift; it comes completely out of the blue, and with only one bar preparation (a descending minor triad in the low instruments), we go from the happy, stable ground of the opening to the invasion of the Ottoman army. Haydn draws upon an orchestrational novelty – an expanded battery of percussion instruments – to connote the Musselman hoards, particularly cymbals and triangle. It’s a wrenching transition, even to modern ears, although it must have been much more dramatic (and titillatingly terrifying) to the audiences of the late 18th century. The centerpiece of the movement, and indeed the whole symphony, is a gesture of musical orientalism, a portrait of the Other that is riddled with the semiotic codes of Turquerie (and let us not forget that Mozart dabbled in these codes as well). At 2:54, we’re back to the orderly, civilized opening theme in the major key, as if nothing had happened at all (or, if Dorothy was listening, “it was all just a dream!”). At 3:30, the percussion enters again, but the theme stays in the major mode. And at 4:43, another signifier of the military enters into the evolving musical narrative in a form of a (positively Mahlerian) solo bugle call. It seems the armies of Europe, and thus civilization, are on the march! At 4:55, the bugle cuts out and we hear a timpani roll crescendoing into a fortissimo Ab major (C in the bass), with full percussion support. This din is the “climax of horrid sublimity” referred to by the reviewer. Sabers rattle around us as we clash with the enemy in battle.

Haydn represents the enemy in this movement by means of musical exoticism. By dipping into the semiological pool of Turkish signifiers, he is able to tap into late 18th century anxieties about invaders from the south. The threat is presented, then promptly neutralized; we end the movement with full percussion, but all the fight has been drained from it, and it seems only to reinforce the opening materials, which serve as a musical representation of civility. There are two points during this movement that register the highest level of terror: when the Turkish percussion first enters and the melody suddenly lurches into the minor mode; and towards the end, when blaring tutti in a new key and rolling timpani (which was then considered a novel technique) conspire to make a warlike noise. In both instances, the threat quickly subsides. The enemy is safely contained.

At the heart of the difference between 18th century and modern representations of terror and the enemy is the question of aesthetic distance. There is a certain aloofness to the classical style; although Haydn shows us the raging Turks, he does so from a distance, placing a frame around the object of horror and allowing us to view the threat from afar, like zoo-going spectators watching the roaring lion from behind the reassuring comfort of a plexiglass wall. Audiences didn’t find the Military Symphony allegretto terrifying; they found it “deliciously terrifying.”[2] In other words, they always remembered that they were listening to a symphony, not a band of wild Turks; there was always a marked distinction between representation and reality. As Mozart put it in an oft-quoted letter, “music, even in the most terrible situations, must never offend the ear, but must please the listener, or in other words must never cease to be music.”[3]

Here, in a nutshell, is the Enlightenment aesthetic of distance. A handful of years later, Kant published his Critique of Judgment, with its notion of “disinterested interest,” a classic formulation of this aesthetic principle. Terror and other extreme states were meant to be observed from a comfortable distance, not actually experienced. Both classical and modern representations of musical terror deal in the sublime, not in today’s sense of the word as “beauty,” but in the classical, Enlightenment understanding of the term – as overwhelming “awe.”[4] Yet the sublime is a moving target historically. What was “horrid sublimity” to Haydn and his contemporaries is practically cute today. The horror of warfare remains today what it was millennia ago; brutal, nauseating, and dumb. The way we represent these eternal conditions through music and the way we listen to sublime terror, however, have shifted profoundly since the 18th century. Terror itself is a universal; we just deal with it in different ways at different times. In Haydn’s day, the roaring lion would have been shot, taxidermized, and displayed for the public to gawk at; today, many people spend good money to view lions in person on safari. The lion is the same – the distance has changed.

[1] H.C. Robbins Landon, Haydn: Chronicle and Works, Volume III (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976-1980), 247.

[2] James Webster, “Haydn,” In New Grove Online, ed. Deane Root (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007-2010).

[3] Mozart, quoted in Richard Taruskin, “Resisting the Ninth,” 19th-Century Music 12/3 (Spring 1989), 249.

[4] For more, see ibid.

Ending vs. Finishing

Haydn is perhaps most famous today for his sophisticated musical wit. Many young musicians encounter him for the first time in the context of his “Surprise” Symphony, with its explosive fortissimo just when you least expect it. (I recall playing this melody with my 6th grade band, and even to us modern kids, comedically conditioned as we were by TV jesters like Steve Urkel, it was a quite a hoot.)

Perhaps the most lengthy musical analysis yet to be found in the OHWM is RT’s 13-page discussion of Haydn’s String Quartet Op.33 No.2, “The Joke” (pp.542-555). As he’s quick to admit, dissecting any act of humor is bound to quash the very quality it aims to explain. Nonetheless, since musical conventions have shifted considerably since Haydn’s time and some of his comedic gestures might not be immediately comprehended today, as they were likely to have been in the late 18th century, I found his thorough explanation quite helpful. Items that benefited from RT’s sure-footed analysis include Haydn’s clever motivic and harmonic manipulations in the first movement, and his parodies of “uncouth village musicians” in the second. The humor of these musical stratagems were, shockingly, actually enhanced through analysis.

But the big joke of the quartet, the witticism that gives the piece its title, comes at the very end. Haydn’s parting jest needs no explanation, no translation, even to listeners in 2010. He makes you think the piece is ending, only to give you more; then, when you think that more is coming, he ends the piece. The clip below demonstrates the comedic currency this gesture still carries for modern audiences (starting around 2:45). RT writes: “And so whenever this ending is performed, it takes the audience an extra second or so to recover its wits and realize that the piece is indeed over. The result is an inevitable giggle – the same giggle that overtakes a prestidigitator’s audience when it realizes that it had been ‘had.’ Haydn’s titular joke is thus not an ‘anecdote’ but a ‘practical joke,’ the product of misdirection.” (II, 553)

The humor in this closing passage comes in defying the listeners’ expectations by manipulating when we think the piece is going to end. It’s quite a sophisticated procedure, really, even though we get the joke without having to make a Schenkerian graph of it. A useful distinction when trying to analyze the anatomy of this joke can be gleaned from musical phenomenology (a great place to start here is Thomas Clifton’s classic 1983 book, Music as Heard). Clifton argues that there’s a profound difference between “ending” and “finishing” in a piece of music. All compositions, of course, end (though Satie’s Vexations comes close to defying this), but not all pieces finish. To end is simply to bring sound to a close, to run out of notes on the score, to put the baton down, and to go to the after-concert party to chat about the show over a brew. To finish, on the other hand, involves an important phenomenological component: does the piece feel like it’s over? Does it close its internal processes and provide some feeling of satisfactory conclusion? Looking at the distinction between ending and closing can be fascinating; Tchaikovsky, for instance, very often FINISHES. But Sibelius, on the other hand, is often quite illusive about the way he closes his symphonies; many of his works end instead of finish. There’s a world of irony and humor (and plenty other affects) bound up in this procedure, a fact that Haydn manipulated to get his audiences, and his musicians, giggling. And we’re still giggling today.

Pathos and Playfulness in Mozart’s Piano Concerto No. 23

Mozart’s twenty-third piano concerto, composed for a subscription concert in 1786, illustrates to stunning effect the composer’s characteristically mercurial sensibilities. Never did he dance more gracefully between the poles of elegant balance and impish amusement, on the one side, and Sturm und Drang dejection and psychological torment on the other. Indeed, affective contrast in central to this work; because the first and last movements are so indefatigably upbeat and buoyant, the wounded core of the concerto, the andante, bleeds all the more red. In this post, I will explore certain aspects of the musical language that Mozart employs in this slow movement to deliver its sublime chill. Moreover, since it’s problematic to address music as a text without referencing its sounding presence, I will briefly examine two recorded performances of the movement, one by Friedrich Gulda on a modern piano and one by Robert Levin on the fortepiano. (Recordings embedded below)

In the rare key of F# minor, the andante employs a range of affective techniques all gesturing towards a universe of sorrow. We begin with an 11-bar piano solo passage that, while starting out with a stable iteration of the tonic, quickly veers into the unexpected. Indeed, the passage is unusual for its wide leaps of strange intervals, a feature particularly evident in m. 2, when we plummet from a G#5 down to an E#2 before stabilizing at B4. There is a sense of profound disjuncture to this wildly vacillating movement between far-flung registers, an effect that is exacerbated by the rupture of the trochee rhythmic pattern established in the first measure. (We’ll return to this opening later.) We thus have a dual breakdown: our tightly-bounded melodic figure lurches unexpectedly into a diminished triad spelled out one note at a time across the range of the instrument, and our rhythmic periodicity is aborted to lend this dramatic gesture additional support. In m. 3, a level of normalcy is asserted once again, as the trochee returns to provide stability to the remainder of the opening. This technique – establishing a framework of normalcy, breaking the rules in a moment of expressive paroxysm, then returning to normal – is not unique to this opening solo. When the orchestra enters in m. 12, it isn’t long before we encounter another rip in the seam of our expectations.

To my ears, the tragic masterstroke of the exposition comes in measures 16-18 (and in the various recapitulations) with a harmonic gesture that exemplifies Mozart’s superlative command over the hermeneutics of despair. We begin (like the opening solo) with a pattern establishing a norm, in this case a grounded harmonic progression that rises from the tonic in m. 12 up the five degrees of the scale to rest on the V7 – cadence position – in m. 16. Unlike the opening (m. 4), where the dominant is sustained through a full measure, however, Mozart jumps the gun here: the tonic arrives on the weak part of the beat. This fleeting rhythmic dissonance is given further destabilizing weight as the ensemble enters subito forte on the tonic to drive home the surprise. Shocking as this disruptive anticipation might be, however, it’s only a harbinger for the wrenching harmonic contortions that follow. In m.17, the basses plunge to C natural, a tritone down from the tonic, and we move into a series of chromatically descending parallel diminished chords. This motion is essentially an unusual reharmonization of the first two bars of the exposition – indeed, the melody in the violins remains the same, although displaced an octave – but more than simply an unorthodox musical procedure, the discombobulating swerve is psychologically potent. Just after sinking through two consecutive diminished chords, when abjection appears complete, we are struck with one more searing diminished harmony on A#. This moment is yet another betrayal of expectations: in the first half of the phrase (m. 14), the melody is harmonized with the tonic in second inversion, but in the second iteration we’re faced with something altogether different. The collapse of expectations is total when the satisfaction of the anticipated tonic is yanked away at the last second for yet another bitter diminished chord, which appears as a tragic fait accompli. After hitting this extreme harmony (Taruskin might call it the FOP, or “far-out-point”), the composer quickly unwinds his position to cadence in time for another piano solo. The process of norm-subversion-norm is complete: unfurling into dark nether regions of the key in a twisted, unpredictable spiral, then pulling himself together for a textbook authentic cadence, Mozart shows us the depth of his control over affect.

Of course, every performance will communicate the pathos of this movement on different terms. I am accustomed to hearing the Mozart concertos played on modern pianos, with their heroic fortissimos, long sustain, and richness of sound. Recently, however, I’ve been drawn to the Christopher Hogwood period instrument recordings with Robert Levin on the fortepiano. At first, the fortepiano struck me as a clumsy substitute for the modern instrument; it decays quickly, lacks the dynamic range, and has a quirky, uneven tone throughout its register. To put it honestly, I despised these recording when I first heard them. The frailty of the instrument simply didn’t seem up to the task of the material (ironic, considering they were all written for the fortepiano) and many passages – especially those involving the lower register at a loud dynamic – sounded almost vaudevillian at times, with rattling, sharp bass notes that conjured images of darting-eyed silent film villains.

Andante (R. Levin – Fortepiano)

In movements such as this andante, however, the structural inferiorities of the fortepiano actually enhance the affective dimensions of the music. Indeed, the very frailty and unevenness of the instrument’s sound serve to highlight the despondent vulnerability of the musical narrative, contributing an additional layer of poignancy to an already taut representation of Weltschmerz. What initially struck me as the distracting imperfections of an inferior, antique instrument have become, through repeated listening, essential interpretative components of the piece itself. Friedrich Gulda’s recording of the work with Nikolaus Harnoncourt, while flawlessly executed, loses some of the movement’s quality of human weakness as a result of its very perfection. The fortepiano, with all of its inherent flaws (to the modern ear, that is), is perhaps better suited, in my opinion, to the subterranean realms explored here. Its sound is a beautiful ugliness.

Andante (F. Gulda – Piano)

To illustrate the difference between piano and fortepiano in this movement, we need look no further than the opening solo. As previously mentioned, part of the rhetorical power of this passage comes in its near-complete (but brief) breakdown of rhetoric in the service of naturalistic expression. When performed on the piano, the sound of each staggered pitch in m. 2 gently bleeds into the next, and the diminished triad materializes out of the mists. Even without the sustain pedal, pianos reverberate differently than their ancestor instruments. But on the fortepiano, this same gesture appears as a distorted, pointillistic helter-skelter of unpredictable sound-dots. The three consecutive notes of the diminished triad are properly contextualized when supported by the superior acoustic projection of the piano; the early instrument, weak in its tonal support and absent in sustain, on the other hand, present these three notes nakedly. They almost sound like mistakes, which in this context is wildly effective. The breakdown of this opening norm is, I think, more pronounced and heartbreaking when rendered on an instrument that equals the affective gesture in abject frailty.

Aside from the choice of instrument used in any recording of the work, one of the major performance practice questions for this and all of Mozart’s concertos (and similar music from that era) has to do with the issue of embellishment and improvisation. Again, on this count, the Gulda and Levin recordings differ profoundly. Gulda sticks quite close to the script, offering occasional embellishments but never venturing into outright improvisation. The repeated sections of the movement’s ternary form are interpreted with exactitude, amounting to the same thing with each repetition. His is a stark and stripped down but ultimately breathtaking interpretation, to be sure. Levin’s recording, on the other hand, takes a number of considerable risks, especially in this day and age when classical performers often shy away from improvisation (or rather, run screaming from it). After the opening, which Levin interprets literally, every other extended passage is embellished to such a florid extent that at times it comes close to pure improvisation. This approach is not without its naysayers, of course, and the pianist makes an explicit point to address these fears in his liner notes, indicating that he would never hope to top what Mozart has written. Rather, improvising so freely throughout is meant to lend a sense of spontaneity to the performance; like a great jazz musician, Levin delights in the radical temporality of the craft. As in any improvised performance, the music on this recording will never be performed the same way ever again.

Listening to the role of improvisation in these two recordings, I’m struck once again by the profound role performer choices make in the delineation of a (composed) musical idea. In different ways, both performances are “authentic”: Gulda follows Mozart’s indications, while Levin engages in a practice that was widespread during the composer’s time (Mozart himself greatly excelled at it, in fact). Both recordings, therefore, are beautiful and truthful in their own ways. However, like the imperfections of the fortepiano’s sound, I find that Levin’s improvisatory flights add profoundly to the dramatic – and indeed, contrastive – character of the music. Improvisation is an art of finitude; it is fleeting, unbounded, and ultimately uncontrollable (at least in the extent that written notes represent “controlled” sounds). The once-in-an-eternity element of Levin’s figures thus signals the transitoriness of the unfolding music, its susceptibility to decay and loss. This interpretation is fitting to the tragic nature of the movement. However, improvisation is also a celebratory embrace of the present moment. As a practice, it stands smiling astride passing time, reveling in each dying second. In this sense, Levin gestures toward the redemptive edification latent in the tragic movement. Thus, through improvisation, Levin boosts the level of both pathos and playfulness.

RT on the birth of the symphony

The free-standing orchestral symphony, produced in great numbers all over Europe beginning in the 1720s and 1730s, was originally a genre of entertainment music, usually performed in the evenings, sometimes out of doors. In short, the term meant aristocratic party music, which over the course of the century, responding to forces of urbanization and the economic empowerment of the bourgeoisie, became more and more available to public access. In the course of its becoming public it became more and more the pretext for the occasions at which it was performed, rather than their mere accompaniment. Thus, finally, the growth of the symphony paralleled the growth of the concert as we know it today – a growth that in turn paralleled a vastly increasing taste for esthetically beguiling or emotionally stirring instrumental music, sought out for the sake of its sheer sensuous and imaginative appeal, and listened to, increasingly, in silent absorption. This was indeed a momentous esthetic change, indeed a revolution. Its beginnings, however, were modest and artistically unpretentious in the extreme. (Vol. II, 498)

Ralph Locke: The Old and the New, Concurrently

A guest post from Ralph Locke:

I’ve been reading vol. 2 of Taruskin’s Oxford History (for my own purposes and pleasure, in the paperback edition), and visiting your blog occasionally. I recently “caught up” with you–finished W. F. Bach, C. P. E. Bach, and J. C. Bach yesterday and began Pergolesi this morning.

I was therefore startled to see Zach’s essay on ugliness in J. S. Bach, since it discusses the preceding chapter (7) and thus might have been posted earlier.

I found it provocative to be reminded by Zach – now with Enlightenment- and commerce-oriented entertainment in my ears and mind – of Taruskin’s ideas about intentional ugliness in J. S. Bach, especially in the (not at all commercially oriented) sacred vocal music.

And Zach’s audio-clips help make Taruskin’s descriptions of Bach’s music about groaning in worldly slime (etc.) vivid indeed!

In any case, the chronological back-turning turns out to be relatively slight (or non-existent): Pergolesi’s La serva padrona was composed in 1733–less than a decade after most of Bach’s cantatas and while Bach was still continuing to compose music of ineffable . . . ugliness.

The same is true of course about Bach’s sons: they were composing in one or another new manner while Dad was still very much alive and active.

There may be simple, practical reasons why this discussion of J. S. Bach got posted after Mark’s essay on W. F. Bach. Still, the surprising juxtaposition ended up reminding me that (as Taruskin occasionally points out) widely divergent compositional and expressive trends can flourish simultaneously–often in different social and cultural contexts, or practiced by composers of different generations who may have known each other’s music and liked it, or hated it.

The Aesthetics of Ugliness

When his music was pleasing, it was usually in order to indoctrinate or cajole. Just as often Bach aimed to torture the ear. (Vol. II, 364)

Not that people today would know this. We moderns, accustomed to Bach’s greatness since childhood, might take issue with RT’s assessment – how could the Bach of Mass in B Minor, Well-Tempered Clavier, and the Brandenbergs possibly torture the ear? His music is upheld as the very sine qua non of divine pulchritude. Just what is Taruskin talking about?

It’s a fair reaction to be taken aback by the suggestion that Bach regularly made deliberately ugly music. Indeed, for most of us, the only Bach we’ve ever heard has been rendered with perfect, crystalline clarity, grace, and beauty (or at least this has been the intent). Contemporary performance practice of Baroque music often dictates that the music should be “pretty” – this is an interpretive, aesthetic evaluation shared by much of the early music movement (along with their marketers), a point that RT makes careful effort to dissect in Text and Act. Of course Bach’s music is beautiful – after all, he’s the godfather of Western music. If his music is “good,” then it’s beautiful. Right?

Yes and no. It depends in large part on how we define beauty. Aesthetics is, of course, an ocean of a topic, and I can only hope to dip a toe in here. Thinkers have been pondering this question for ages, and RT’s treatment of Bach in this respect presents us with an ideal case study. Plato equated beauty with “the Good,” arguing that it was a reflection of the ideal manifested in our shadow world of mere forms. Further, he thought that music should reflect only beauty, even going as far as to equate beautiful music with goodness of character (The Republic, 97). It takes a good person to make good music, but, reciprocally, music can also ennoble or corrupt a person depending upon how beautiful it is. It’s the sworn duty of the musician, therefore, to only create music that is beautiful; there is a moral imperative to it. Indeed, the stability of the state depends on it.

To Bach, this classical view was poppycock, as was Enlightenment aesthetics. A devout Lutheran, Bach considered music to be the handmaiden of the truth. The goal was not necessarily the pursuit of disembodied beauty; rather, much of his music was put to the service of expressing ecclesiastical, theological realities. RT puts it magnificently: “Such music was a medium of truth, not beauty, and the truth it served – Luther’s truth – was often bitter. Some of Bach’s most striking works were written to persuade us – no, reveal to us – that the world is filth and horror, that humans are helpless, that life is pain, and that reason is a snare.” (363) To paraphrase: life is ugly, and you need ugly music to express it. (This passage is positively punk rock-ian.)

How did Bach enact his aesthetics of ugliness? In many cases, he deliberately broke the rules of counterpoint, treating dissonance in ways that would have affected a sense of – in RT’s estimation – literal nausea. For example, see the bass aria from the cantata “Meine Seufzer, meine Tränen,” BWV 13. Here, in a tangle of bizarre, unpredictable harmonic activity, is a series of parallel motion by sevenths, a forbidden (RT: “diseased”) musical gesture. Of course, the text of the aria begins with “Groaning and pitifully wailing or worrying won’t relieve sickness”; to be sure, musical beauty would hardly be appropriate for such a hard-core subject. Listen for all the devilish tritone leaps and worm-eaten chromaticisms. Here’s the aria, in all its ugly glory.

It’s a potent musical strategy, even to jaded, modern ears that are plenty used to dissonance. Another example of this form of deliberate ugliness can be found in the opening chorus of “Nimm von uns, Herr, du treuer Gott.” There are a lot of disorienting cross-relations and harmonic leaps here that sound like mistakes (and this clip is Harnoncourt, so they’re definitely not!):

But Bach didn’t just conjure the ugly truth through sophisticated, “wrong” compositional gambits; he also deliberately set his musicians up to fail. RT’s example, the aria “Liebster Gott,” comes from BWV 179, wherein he pairs a boy soprano with two oboi da caccia (an ancestor of the English horn). Bach pushes his poor performers to the depths of their registers with notes so low that they would have been nearly impossible to tune correctly.

Not that people today would know this. Indeed, this piece is often performed now with modern English horns (though not in this clip), which can handle the low stuff with intonational aplomb. The boy soprano of old is replaced in most modern performances with women, who can easily hit all the right notes. In other words, the intended effect of ugliness, struggle, and ultimately failure is lost in most modern performances. Instead, it is rendered pretty.

This gets us back to the opening thoughts. It’s hard to imagine an “authentic” performance of such a piece today, with the pathetic boy soprano trying to hit pitches his little voice can’t muster (see around 3:40, which this singer handles beautifully). Is this piece still, then, ugly in the way Bach desired it to be? Or are we merely improving on it when we make it beautiful? Or – to go one step further – is the violation of its original truth content (which Bach valued above beauty) actually enough to make the modern performance uglier than the original? Is truth the same as beauty? (In which case, we can eschew the whole question.)

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.