The Riddle that Broke History’s Back

What do you get when you put the best four composers ever to come out of London in a room together?

-Two Germans, one Italian, and a Bohemian.

By the end of the 19th century, English culture had become the butt of every nationalist joke. They were known to Germans as Das Land ohne Musik, a people without a music—and by extension without a culture—of their own (III, 802). England was undergoing a dry spell. A centuries-long dry spell in fact—”since the death of Purcell in 1695, the English had been without a native-born composer of wide international repute” (III, 804).*

But my poor excuse for a joke above is not the “riddle” that I refer to in the title of this post. I’m of course talking about Continue reading “The Riddle that Broke History’s Back”

Victory over Vol. III, or, The Chaikovsky Problem

Appropriately enough, Vol. III ends with Tchaikovsky (RT’s more consistently anglicized “Chaikovksy”), the master of the (melo-)dramatic finale. It was an arduous journey through the thickest volume of the set but, like the Russian victory over Napoleon in 1812, we emerged triumphant. Three down, two to go!

As we did with the last two volumes, we’re going to take a short reading break before resuming the Challenge with the early 20th century. But before moving on, expect some catch-up posts on the fascinating last 200 pages of the text. Also look for a Must-reads update in the near future.

But back to Chaikovsky for a moment. As I ruminate on my personal history with this composer, I remember that, as a kid, Tchaik was on par with Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven as far as “greatness” goes. I even owned a plastic bust of the guy (bearded composers were my favorites). Pieces like the 1812 Overture and the Nutcracker were about as amazing as classical music could get (come on, it even has a part for cannon!), and my family, which is full of musicians, ranked him high on their list (although my curmudgeonly grandfather always liked to point out that he was “as queer as a three-dollar bill”). Imagine my surprise, then, when at the tender age of 18 my college music history prof dismissed his music as “sentimental.” I clearly recall the cognitive dissonance I experienced upon learning that the music of a great composer was really something twee, excessive, and – worst of all – “popular.” I guess I, along with audiences for over a hundred years, was wrong about the guy!

The reception history of Chaikovsky is a twisting and (at times) tragic story that highlights the seismic shifts in our musical values over the last 100+ years. By “our,” of course, I mean music scholarship. For many decades, Chaikovsky’s link to ballet, his homosexuality, and his grand, gushing melodies were enough to make more than a few musicologists blush with shame. How could such a composer compete with the “serious” (read: German) masters? As a result of this category crisis, Chaikovsky was denigrated, dismissed, and discarded by generations of scholars.

Not that the concert-going public would know any of this, however. Chaikovsky, along with composers like Rachmaninoff, Rossini, Puccini, and Sibelius, dazzlingly demonstrates the frequent disconnect between what scholars deem important and what actual audiences do. Even during the darkest years of Chaikovsky-negativity in the academy, music-lovers flocked to annual performances of the Nutcracker, tingled as the 1812 finale joyously marauded their eardrums, and pondered in rapt concentration the 6th symphony in a darkened concert hall (sharing a billing with Beethoven, no less!). While I certainly wouldn’t argue that it’s musicology’s job to slavishly track the popular simply by virtue of the fact that it’s popular (though tell that to the growing Lady Gaga Studies crowd), such a profound disjuncture between what is “important” to the scholar and what is “important” to the audience should give us pause.

Of course, Chaikovsky (along with the others mentioned above) has since been rehabilitated, giving today’s scholars the opportunity to look back smugly on the benighted history of the discipline and revel in just how far we’ve come. It does make you wonder, though, what we could be missing or dismissing right now. Might the musicologist of the future look back with bemusement at the conceptual blind spots that caused us to neglect such “important” artists today (Lady Gaga)?

Wagnerian Aesthetics 101

What I experience when I experience the tonal tendency of a sound is the dynamics of my own desire, its arousal, its satisfaction, its frustration. It is my own desire for the leading tone to move up, the satisfaction of my own desire when it so moves, the frustration thereof when it refuses to budge or when it moves elsewhere, that I feel… Thus, the precondition of my being able to hear an imaginary pattern of lines of directed motion in a tonal work is that I first experience the desires, satisfactions, and frustrations of this sort. In tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire precedes any recognition of the represented object, of lines of directed motion, and is the necessary precondition of such a recognition. I must first experience the desire that the leading tone move up, before I can recognize the representation of an imaginary ascending line when it so moves.

It follows that tonal music, like a visual medium, may represent an imaginary object different from myself, an imaginary world, albeit a highly abstract one, consisting of lines of directed motion. But, unlike a visual medium, tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring, my own inner world, and it is this latter experience that is the more primordial one, since any representation depends on it. While visual media allow us to grasp, represent, and explore an outer, visual world, music makes it possible for me to grasp, experience, and explore and inner world of desiring. While visual media show us objects we might want without making us aware of what it would feel like to want anything, music makes us aware of how it feels to want something without showing us the objects we want. In a brief formula, visual media are the instruments of knowing the object of desire but not the desire itself, tonal music is the instrument of knowing the desire but not its object.   — Karol Berger, quoted in III, 529-530

What perfect thoughts to frame the mammoth issue of Wagnerian aesthetics, and also to demonstrate Wagner’s fundamental contradictions and, as we shall see, “dangers.” In fact, like Wagner’s music, this lengthy excerpt (RT rarely interpolates quotes this extensive) is an exercise both in profundity (or seeming depth, at least) and in vexing frustration. Let’s start unpacking.

The philosophical premise of this observation is, of course, straight-up Schopenhauerian. Music in this schema (tonal music, to be precise) represents the inner stirrings of the Will, an unadulterated snapshot of “pure” desire. Berger, then, assents to the fundamental premises of Wagner’s own conception of music: it is deeper than simple harmonious arrangements of sounds, instead striking at the lived essence of being human. Indeed, it seems to me that without accepting this supposition on some level, even with a critical ear, Wagner’s “Schopenhauerian” operas would be at times utterly mystifying and, frankly, incoherent. More so than any other composer, a philosophical context is needed to appreciate what Wagner’s up to.

But when Berger and RT talk about the channeling of desire that lies at the root of Wagner’s tonal procedures, just who is doing the desiring, and what sort of desire are we talking about anyway? In this regard, the use of a false “we” glosses over an important question: just how universal is this representation of desire? (Berger, partially in his defense, promiscuously alternates “us” with “me.”) As Berger and RT point out – and Wagner requires – music has the power to stir us deeply by connecting with the fundamental temporal rhythms of life (expectation, desire, frustration, satisfaction, etc) in a mimetic relationship that can eschew metaphorical representation to strike at the actual feelings themselves. However, we must be careful not to universalize this phenomenon in regard to tonal music. Like any historically bounded cultural phenomenon, tonality is a construct, not a universal technology for the expression of human drives. Berger is correct when he specifies that he feels a certain way when listening to tonal music; when he switches to “us,” he strays from the fundamental claim, that as Westerners steeped in the rules of tonality from birth, we connect to tonal patterns as if they are idealized analogs to interior experience. Background and exposure are critical here: in the absence of enculturation into the tonal system, Wagner would make just about as much sense as the Klingon language.

Is there a claim here that tonality is uniquely qualified to represent the deepest desires of people? “Tonal” is the ubiquitous qualifier in this excerpt (RT adopts it as well): thus, “in tonal music, the direct experience of the dynamics of my own desire..” and “tonal music also makes me experience directly the dynamics of my own desiring,” etc. It is difficult to deny that tonality, in all its ephemeral glory, represents a certain triumph of expressive economy, but I don’t see how you could argue that it is more effective at channeling our desires than a vast array of other musical systems at mankind’s disposal. A Monteverdi madrigal, while not strictly tonal, manipulates desire in extremely effective ways; so does a Charlie Parker improvisation and a Japanese shakuhachi honkyoku piece. Is tonality sui generis in its ability to channel desire, or just one technique among many?

And just what are we desiring when we experience musical desire? It’s difficult not to broach the topic of sex here, though RT and Berger seem to safely eschew the issue (Susan McClary doesn’t, and neither, thankfully, does Wagner in Tristan). Not to venture too far into the trendy field of body scholarship here, but “desire” is a mighty abstract concept when completely decoupled from our experience as embodied beings. Is Berger relating his experiences of listening to tonal music to some disembodied, idealized form of desire? Is it a puzzle-solving sort of desire, an intrinsic compulsion to solve problems and work out conundrums, that a resolved leading tone connects us to? If limited entirely to that, what an impoverished sort of desire we’re dealing with. As reams of scholars have attempted to show, “internal” desires are directly related to the “external” desires of the body, and in this regard, in tonality we have a forcefully articulated symbolic system for talking about sex (and experiencing its impulses vicariously). It’s reductionistic to boil down all desire to sex, of course; the sexual experience is but one form of the bodily pattern of ebb/flow, tension/release that repeats itself in many guises. But it seems to me that the body at least merits some mention whenever the tricky question of desire comes up in relation to music. If we want to get into human universals as a grounds of music making, this seems a fruitful place to begin.

To close out this over-long post, let’s return to the issue of danger mentioned earlier. Wagner, more than anyone else in the history of Western music, is still, as in his own day, viewed by many as a threat. His connection to Europe’s brutal history of anti-semitism is the most obvious reflection of his music’s dangerous powers, of course, but there’s more to the problem of Wagner than this (or rather, this is symptomatic of a more general problem of danger and contagion that his music represents). As Hanslick observes, “while the other arts persuade, music invades.” (III, 531. Italics mine.) This gets us back to the dichotomy of inner/outer, hearing/vision, and to the fundamentally embodied experience of all music. It’s a problem with roots as far back (in the West) as Heraclitus, snaking its way through the work of Plato, Aristotle, and all the way to Rousseau and Kant – sight is the “objective” sense, and hearing is the “subjective” sense. Wagner himself followed this logic when he observed: “To the eye appeals the outer man, the inner to the ear.” (For a couple of great resources on this topic, see philosopher Adriana Cavarero’s For More Than One Voice and Don Ihde’s Listening and Voice: A Phenomenology of Sound.)

Music, in this schema, can be dangerous because unlike visual stimuli, it invades our very bounded sense of personhood without warning. We can shut our eyes to block sights, but we cannot easily shut our ears to block sounds. This makes us vulnerable to music’s potentially pernicious influences, and for a composer whose sumptuous, seductive music touches upon our (careful: tonally-trained individuals’) psychological drives to the extent that Wagner’s has the ability to do, this can be problematic. In a key sense, Tristan is basically one long auto-asphyxiation fantasy: orgasm and death are equated in a way that, when most of us think about it closely, is quite troubling. (See John Deathridge’s classic book Wagner Beyond Good and Evil for more on this.) But because the musical message has the ability (some would argue) to bypass reason to strike at the Schopenhauerian Will, our guard is down and we cannot block this dangerous, subversive message. Anxieties like these, similar to the taboos around dirt and contamination outlined by Mary Douglas, play at our deep fears of boundary crossing, of bodily invasion and contagion. What makes Wagner’s music so potentially dangerous, so argues Hanslick, is not necessarily its anti-semitic content (though this is repulsive in the extreme): it’s the inability for it to be contained. Wagner’s greatest power – the Schopenhauerian depths of his music, its ability to channel desire, its overwhelming expressive force – is thus also its most subversive quality.

Our Weight is Lifted: The OHWM Online

The folks over at Oxford University Press (OUP) recently rolled out the latest component in the OHWM ecosystem: an online version of Taruskin’s complete text, accessible through a institutional or individual subscription. A few weeks ago, the people over at OUP gave me advance access to the database, which allowed me to poke around and ponder some of the advantages and potential disadvantages of this new iteration of the OHWM.

The first advantage is perhaps the most obvious: it makes the OHWM portable. “Portable” is definitely not a word used to describe the series up to now. Virtually every story written about Taruskin’s opus has mentioned its formidable size, this blog included (more than once).  My non-virtual edition (that is, the paperback one) of the OHWM lives at home, and I almost never take it with me to school or class, for practical reasons. I certainly have never taken the entire set out of the house at once. There have been several times over the last year when, in the final preparations for teaching a music history class, I suddenly think of something in the OHWM that would go perfectly in the lecture. Whereas before I would have to file it away “for next time,” having access to this database anywhere, anytime, could bring more of those potential teaching moments to immediate reality.

The second advantage I noticed was the searching capability, which allows the reader to investigate conceptual threads throughout all volumes. Search “passus duriusculus,” for instance, and you immediately get an at-a-glance perspective of this rich concept’s pervasive presence in Taruskin’s history.

From my limited interaction with the site (my preview access has expired), it seems like a fairly straightforward porting of the text from page to screen, with only a few bells and whistles. The pages are parsed out by section (rather than chapter), so that the text comes in relatively small chunks, equivalent to a few “real” pages at a time. All musical examples and images are incorporated into the flow of the text (with a handy “Art Credits” link). Though each entry is placed within the flow of the overall text via the table of contents sidebar, the interface encourages various reading experiences other than the traditional linear one. You can skip around, search key terms, or click on the related links to outside material from Grove Music Online. While I can see some benefits of these alternate strategies, I can’t help but feel that the overall narrative and argumentative arc of the history, which Taruskin has crafted so consistently and skillfully, will be lost on more casual users of the site.

One opportunity that I would like to see pursued is the development of even more interconnectivity with Oxford Music Online. Currently, Taruskin’s sections link to Grove online, but it doesn’t look like that connection is a two-way one. It would be nice, with a single search, to receive results from Grove Music Online, the Oxford Companion to Music, the Oxford Dictionary Online, and the OHWM. I don’t know if this is even possible (for legal reasons) or ultimately desirable (for philosophical ones), but the prospect is a tantalizing one. I can easily imagine a distinct benefit for the end user.

In my opinion, the best way to experience the OHWM is to read it straight through, on paper. This is the way Taruskin conceived of it, and his writing shows that he took the long-form medium seriously. I also see the immense practicality the digital OHWM will bring to its current readers, and the increased dissemination of the material to potential readers. In other words, I like both; I want both. Can I have my cake and eat a virtual version of it too?

But now I ask you: If you had access to this database, how/when/why would you use it? Would you do all your reading on the site, or only when you were away from your paper copy? If you don’t own a paper copy, would you feel a need to buy one given that it’s all there online?

Narrative Development in Chopin’s Nocturnes

David Rowland, in his essay, “The Nocturne: Development of a New Style,” (The Cambridge Companion to Chopin, 1992) argues that Chopin took an established “nocturne style” and developed it in new ways. Much of Rowland’s essay focuses on establishing the particular nocturne style, developed by John Field and others, that Chopin inherited. This style was characterized by a relatively simple form (ABA or ABAB), with the left hand playing broken chords, and the right hand utilizing simple ornamentation. (Rowland, 43)

But Rowland, at the conclusion of his essay, also mentions some new developments that Chopin made to the genre. Rather than the typically straightforward ABA or ABAB forms of the earlier nocturnes, in the later ones “there is a sense of development, or progression through the work…. Op. 48 No. 1 is a good example. The return of the opening melodic idea towards the end of the piece is accompanied by much richer figuration and is marked agitato. As a result, there is a drama in this final section which is entirely lacking at the beginning of the piece.” (Ibid., 48)

The following analysis will examine some of the particular musical characteristics Chopin used to effect this heightened drama. To understand how this later nocturne departed from Chopin’s earlier formal approaches, I will first compare it with a nocturne that was composed ten years earlier, Op. 15 No. 1 in F major. (Download the C minor score here, the F major score here.)

The nocturnes are both cast in the typical ABA form, with a clearly projected homophonic texture in the A section, and a contrasting texture in the B section. In the F major nocturne, the A section features the nocturne texture that Chopin used so well: a vocal-like melody in the right hand with the standard nocturne accompaniment of broken chords in the left (Example 1). The C minor nocturne features the same vocal-like melody but with a slow “oom-pah” accompaniment in the left (Example 2). Both nocturnes also have a B section that adds drama to the piece. It explodes right from the start in the F major nocturne, clearly marking for the listener that new territory has been reached. In the C minor nocturne, the boundaries are more fluid, and the dramatic intensity gathers gradually.

The F minor nocturne had begun delicately and simply in the A section, with semplice e tranquillo, dolcissimo, and delicatissimo markings. Out of this peaceful mood breaks the furious  con fuoco section (m. 25), which holds forth in all its turbulent glory unceasingly for the next 24 measures until it finally peters out and leads, calando, back to the A section material. It is a true return, with the left-hand accompaniment lifted directly from the beginning section. The right-hand melody is also the same, with added ornamentation.

The phrase structure also returns almost whole, the only difference being that what was an open phrase in m. 24—the one which led into the B section—now receives a proper closure in the final four measures of the piece. In other words, the story of this piece is that it begins in one place, moves to another, and then returns right back to the place where it started—your basic there and back again. If this piece were a drama, it might be described in the following way:

  • Act 1—Set the stage; introduce the main characters
  • Act 2—Pure action
  • Act 3—Repeat Act 1

In other words, it is no drama at all, but rather more akin to a da capo aria form. An aria provides a momentary tableau within a larger story, and is not expected to contain a complete dramatic span. Neither is this nocturne.

The later nocturne in C minor, on the other hand, follows a more linear progression, creating a drama that begins, develops, and ends somewhere new. Instead of having alternating sections with no formal, stylistic or rhythmic bleed, as in the F major nocturne, the musical forces introduced in the B section (mm. 25-48) affect the restatement of the A section at the end of the piece (mm. 49-77). On a structural level, this is most keenly felt in the development of rhythmic pulse throughout the piece. In the A section, the rhythmic streams break down into groups of two and four, with the two highest levels of subdivision being eighth notes and sixteenth notes (all in duple groupings). The B section maintains this stream throughout the entire first statement of the chorale (mm. 25-36). The restatement of the chorale melody soon meets with a cross-cutting force (m. 39), a rising chromatic figure that obliterates melodic and rhythmic flow by introducing a new rhythmic stream: sixteenth notes grouped as triplets. The chorale tries several times to go on to completion, each time only to be interrupted yet again, until the rambunctious triplet stream eventually takes over completely by m. 46.

All hope of a “there and back again” form is not yet lost. Like the F minor nocturne, this tempestuous contrasting section may still peter out into a restatement of the A section just as it was in the beginning of the piece. But it is not to be. Instead, the new triplet stream introduced in the B section carries over into the restatement of the A section, beginning in m. 49. Like a locomotive, the momentum of the chromatic triplet motive has gathered to such a point that it would take a major opposing force to counteract it. Chopin provided no such force, and following section gives in to the inertia. This results in two opposing streams occurring side by side—one dividing the beat into four sixteenth notes, one dividing it into eighth-note triplets. It is a typical hemiola effect, with the undergirding of an extraordinary formal rationale.

The transformation of the A section material is the result of the developmental nature of the B section. Recall the B section of Op. 15 No. 1. The fiery nature of that section was consistent from beginning to end, bookended by two relatively calm sections. The B section of Op. 48 No. 1, on the other hand, builds gradually, constantly adding both in dynamic level and rhythmic intensity. The difference between these two story-lines can be graphically represented—though roughly—by a series of bars, where an increase in the height of the bar reflects an increase in inertia (increase in inertia in this case results from an increase of various musical elements such as dynamic level, rhythmic interest, and range).

In other words, if the C minor nocturne were a drama, it might be described in the following way:

  • Act 1—Set the stage; introduce the main characters
  • Act 2—Gradual and building action, leading to a climax
  • Act 3—Concluding act that continues climax, resolves conflict, shows character development

This story-line fits much better into the mold of a drama than the F major nocturne. As a result, David Rowland’s observation about drama in Op. 48 No. 1, stated above, can be expanded. This piece not only has drama, it seems appropriate to talk about the piece as a drama.

The fusion of these two contrasting rhythmic streams in the A’ section has many ramifications, including grandiose figuration, rhythmic tension, and an increasingly dense texture. Grandiose figuration occurs in both the left and right hands, where the eighth-note triplet has become the basic pulse for the accompaniment. This underlying pulse creates rhythmic tension with the melody, because the latter retains the subdivision into groups of four sixteenth notes from its initial statement. The result is a recurring four against three rhythm (see mm. 54, 55, 58, 59, 66, 68, and 69-70). Also, the texture of this final section, although consistent on a wallpaper level, changes subtly by adding density. In mm. 49-62, the left hand has only two notes in a chord at a time (with a lone exception in m. 51). But in m. 65, at the beginning of a new phrase, a third note is added to the successive chordal inversions in the left hand, making an already dense texture even more so. This continues until m. 71, the start of the final cadence of the piece. From this point on, there is a denouement, gradually reducing the density of the texture to the end of the piece.

What a difference the accumulation of one new element can make. It is representative of a subtle shift in Chopin’s approach to the nocturne, one in which formal sections are not hermetically sealed but have the ability to influence one another. And although this nocturne may have been the first to reflect linear progression on such a scale, it was not the last. The A’ section of the other nocturne in Op. 48 (No. 2 in F# minor) also undergoes a transformation, though not primarily through rhythmic developments. In No. 2 it is the melodic, harmonic, and phrase structure that differs from the first A to the last—the very elements that are retained in the second statement of the opening C minor theme. But by either compositional technique, Op. 48 represents a departure from the prevailing da capo form in Chopin’s nocturne style, towards nocturnes that were through composed.

Schumann’s “Waldszenen”: Fragments of Exterior and Interior Nature

In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.   – John Muir

In the Romantic conception of the natural world, as John Muir so lucidly illustrates, communing with nature was not simply a matter of delighting in its newly aestheticized beauty. Rather, it was a portal into sublime, transcendent realms, as well as a mirror turned to the Self. Muir wrote: “The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.” For composers of the era (particularly German ones), deeply concerned with the question of the “Universe,” the question thus became one of mimesis, of how to conjure the spiritual awe of the wilderness on its own terms while also representing what we “receive” by interacting with it. The question of nature was never purely about the abstract contemplation of transcendent, boundless properties, what Kant might describe as the mathematical sublime; it was also about how we, as humans, fit into the grand cosmic scheme. Exterior nature was simply interior nature writ large.

A profound ambiguity characterized much of the Romantic perspective of nature. It existed outside of civilization, which, in the wake of rapid industrialization, was becoming increasingly noisy, foul, and dirty. Beyond the “dark satanic mills” of Blake, nature was symbolized as a pure, idyllic reality that we had given up in our Faustian pursuit of “progress.” On the other hand, progress wasn’t such a bad thing after all, and, as Peter Coates points out, many people during the early to mid-nineteenth century saw wilderness as just so much unproductive space hampering human growth. These dueling conceptions of the natural world played out in popular notions of what nature sounded like as well, a matter of importance to composers attempting to conjure nature through music. According to Coates, the wilderness was perceived as both “silent and howling:”[1] silent in its noble, profound separation from the noisy affairs of mankind; howling in the dangerous chaos it embodied. Both of these poles found utterance in the music of this period. In addition to describing the contradictory qualities of nature, moreover, writers, composers and artists saw this conflict as endemic to the human soul. We are all, indeed, “silent and howling” inside.

Schumann’s Waldszenen, a cycle of nine pieces for piano, perfectly captures a variety of perspectives associated with the Romantic representation of nature as both an external and an internal state (click here to download the score; audio files are embedded in the post). On the most basic level, the cycle incorporates much of the traditional Germanic musical symbolism of nature; in “Jäger auf der Lauer” and “Jagdlied,” for instance, evocations of the hunting horn (waldhorn) are peppered throughout. (For a representative example, see the former, mm. 13-14, with its brash major triads.) In addition, in the echt Romantic “Vogel als Prophet,” Schumann represents the twittering of a forest bird with fleet, upper register flourishes. (Such mimesis is, of course, a standard musical trope going back hundreds of years in the Western musical tradition.) But the composer does not stop at the obvious in his pursuit of vivid evocation. In Waldszenen, a new aesthetic awareness of nature becomes apparent in the composer’s idiosyncratic treatment of form and periodicity. Many of the pieces in the cycle are marked with seemingly odd structural quirks that, if not found within the context of a Romantic piano cycle on nature, might be difficult to explain. Indeed, as Charles Rosen indicates, some of the early Romantics believed that chaos played a major role in creativity and, as previously mentioned, nature was closely linked to chaos.[2] To conjure this sense of unpredictability, Schumann employed asymmetrical forms that successfully eschew expectations and regularity. I will return to some examples shortly.

This formal conception is also closely related to the Romantic “fragment” idea, which is similarly elucidated by Rosen. As the author points out, Schumann was a master of this particular aesthetic. Although fragments took a diverse variety of specific forms, we can identify a few elements that played a major role in many of Schumann’s lieder. In some of his music, Schumann shows us images of a process much larger than what is actually represented in the score, an effect often carried out by abbreviating beginnings and endings to make the listener feel as if he has stumbled into the musical action in medias res. Other common techniques of the fragment aesthetic include quotation and the embedding of unrelated musical materials. As I shall attempt to demonstrate, in addition to his lieder repertory, these techniques are found in Waldszenen. The aesthetic of the fragment, in fact, is ideally suited to Romantic musical constructions of the forest. Poets and composers of the day embraced this form due to its perceived “naturalness,” and a clear corollary existed between exterior nature (as exemplified by the forest) and interior nature.

Indeed, the fragment is clearly representative of Romantic notions of subjective experience. Waldszenen isn’t a musical portrait of nature composed from the perspective of a detached, depersonalized subject; rather, it’s the representation of nature seen through the eyes of a human narrator. The piece unfolds as a sort of musical interior monologue of a person’s journey into and out of the woods. Furthermore, memory is actively engaged through near-constant evocations of earlier material. Although he rarely quotes himself directly, the score is strewn with references to what we’ve already heard; as if commenting on the fallibility of memory, we are continually presented with vaguely familiar yet tantalizingly distant snippets of music – a chord here, a melodic fragment there, a rhythm that you think you recall but can’t quite place.[3] Waldszenen casts a thick fog over our perception of passing time.

Preliminaries out of the way, I will proceed now to a more detailed reading of the attributes introduced above, focusing on three scenes, “Eintritt,” “Vogel als Prophet,” and “Abschied.” The first piece of the cycle, “Eintritt” (Entrance), begins without a real beginning. Instead, the listener is plopped down right in the middle of a light accompanimental figure; the journey, it seems, has already begun before the first note even sounds. This cheerful material lasts for two measures, wherein we’re given only the bass and harmonic accompaniment pattern. In m. 3, the melody enters, but like the beginning of the piece, it catches the listener unawares. Without any preparation, the melody comes in right during the middle of the harmonic progression, on the dominant preparation of IV-V7; just as we’re introduced to this simple theme, therefore, we hit the first cadence of the piece – we arrive before we’ve gotten anywhere. The opening passage is structured in a symmetrical 8-bars, but the musical events don’t play out in a way that is intuitive. When we reach the end of the phrase (on a tonicized V), our closure is aborted by the return of the accompanimental figure from the first measure. Again, without preparation, we are thrust back into the original key, and earlier than expected, creating a stutter in the form. Instead of the introductory four statements of the figure, the first ending anticipates the repeat to produce five, and we’re back where we started.


This 8-bar opening sounds misaligned, like the printer accidentally slid the plates into the wrong position: both the harmonic accompaniment and the melody are straightforward, but they don’t seem to match up. When we return to the beginning after the repeat, the nakedness of the opening two measures is all the more striking. Indeed, it sounds like an accompaniment with a missing melody. The melodic entrance in m. 3, then, is recast as simply the continuation of a melodic line that was mysteriously deleted from the first two measures. When the melody enters, its childishness and naiveté suggest our wanderer distractedly humming a simple tune as she enters the forest. She may have forgotten the first part of the melody, but she can jump in at the next phrase that comes to mind.

All of this is consonant with Rosen’s thoughts on the fragment aesthetic. We are not simply getting a musical glimpse of the forest; nature, in her harmonically ambiguous wonder, doesn’t appear until m. 9. Rather, this opening is a portrayal of a person’s interaction with nature. The fragmentary musical narrative is just as much about people as it is about nature, a point that is illustrated by Schumann’s vivid musical commentary on subjective memory. Throughout the cycle, material is scrambled to produce a hazy collage of impressions. Does our fair forest wanderer ever remember the beginning of the tune? Five pieces later, she does. “Herberge” opens with a melody that fills in this missing space in memory.


The next piece, “Vogel als Prophet,” demonstrates that it’s not just human consciousness that is prone to asymmetry and formal slippage. Schumann’s intimations of birdsong, while stopping short of Messiaen in ornithological accuracy, conjure the darting, unpredictable quality of birds with quicksilver rhythms, high registration, wide leaps, and a juicy semitone relationship between the first and second notes of each phrase. (This last point links Schumann’s birdsong to musical exoticism and the semiotic connection between nature and the “Orient.”) Like “Eintritt,” this piece plays with simple, symmetrical formal structures in a way that’s perfectly in line with the fragment idea, and with representations of nature as unbound from human control. The opening 16 measures of the “bird” passage (before the “prophet” starts talking in m. 19) unfolds in the perfectly symmetrical pattern of 4 + 4 + 8, complete with cadence points where one might expect them. However, as this stable structure comes to a close, we are presented once again with the first two bars of the piece. This tacked-on material throws off the symmetry of the form (4 + 4 + 8 + 2 = 18); moreover, it serves absolutely no function as a transitional element. Instead, just as quickly as we return to the familiar opening passage, Schumann jarringly introduces new material that bears no relationship to the bird music besides sharing a key. The bird, it seems, has turned prophet.

Vogel Als Prophet

The prophet section of the piece (mm. 19-24) is marked by elegance, grace, and nobility. It’s a delicious bite, to be sure, but Schumann only gives us a tiny morsel. Like the opening, the section is cast asymmetrically, with stable material followed by a sudden shift into new territory. Indeed, at the end of m. 23, when the whole texture is transposed to the bVI, the composer marks it “Verschiebung” (shifting). After just a few beats of the new key, and just as suddenly as we entered it, Schumann pulls the listener back into the opening bird material. This whole 6-measure passage is embedded within the matrix of the bird music, although no attempt is made to seamlessly integrate it into the piece. The musical strategy is characterized instead by its fragmentary juxtaposition.

The aesthetics of juxtaposition find their most perfect expression in the final piece, “Abschied” (Farewell), a wistful goodbye to the forest. In musical terms, this sense of nostalgia is enacted through a series of faint allusions to previous material from the cycle. “Borrowing” or “quotation” would be too strong of words here; rather, the process consists of recasting familiar material in a new setting. It’s enough to establish identity, but just barely. To name a few examples, the melody at m. 3 is strongly reminiscent of “Herberge” (compare to m. 1 of the excerpt on p. 6). In m. 12, the bass movement (V-vi) through chromatic passing tone is taken from “Eintritt” and “Herberge” (m. 2). The pungent clash of B natural/Bb in “Einsame Blumen” (mm. 12 and 38) make its thorny appearance once again in m. 17 of “Abschied.” In m. 29, we get a melodic turn from “Freundliche Landschaft,” and in m. 32, the chromatic exoticism of the bird sneaks in for a quick appearance. Measure 33 is reminiscent of the “Eintritt” opening melody, and m. 38 reiterates “Herberge” in the left hand. More examples abound, but my point is sufficiently made: the final piece of the cycle collages familiar music to conjure a sense of nostalgia for the forest as it recedes into the background, and through the fragmented chaos of memories, full of half-remembered images and fleeting impressions, Schumann evokes the “silent and howling” interior life of the forest wanderer, who turns out to be none other than the listener. “In every walk with nature one receives far more than he seeks.” Schumann seems to suggest that, in nature, you find yourself.


[1] Peter Coates, “The Strange Stillness of the Past: Toward an Environmental History of Sound and Noise,” Environmental History 10/4 (Oct. 2005): 643.

[2] Charles Rosen, The Romantic Generation (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), 95.

[3] Rosen also discusses this idea in regard to the fragment. For more, see Rosen, 115.

Erlkönig and the Subjective

The knotty relationship between text and music has beguiled musicians for centuries, nay millennia. Augustine articulated this conflict early on when he expressed concern that the sumptuousness of music would distract listeners from the meaning of the sacred texts. Qualms like this raise an important question, one that has been vociferously debated over the years and (delightfully) never settled: how should music behave vis-a-vis text? (Or in the language of the Monteverdi/Artusi kerfuffle, just who is the handmaiden and who is the master?)

The nineteenth century brought new perspectives into this ever-changing debate. Consonant with the Romantic concept of Innigkeit (musical inwardness), composers began to highlight the textual difference between “objective” reality and lived, “subjective” experience. Music, rather than just representing a text, could be used as a medium of literary analysis. To this cohort, music was not the handmaiden to the text, but rather its equal (or superior), capable of contradicting the words, ironically commenting upon them, and reinterpreting them entirely. The best of the lieder composers excelled at this sort of creative play, eschewing the “objective” reality of a text-space to explore its subjective resonance.

To illustrate this, let’s return to our composer du jour, Schubert, in his setting of Erlkönig (“The Elf King”). Goethe’s mysterious, macabre little poem touches upon many a Romantic preoccupation, from nature to the supernatural to death. It opens onto a father riding through the night with his sick child. The boy keeps seeing things in the dark mist of the forest, or so his father thinks. In reality (the boy’s consciousness), the Elf King waits in the woods, luring him with promises of games, bright flowers, and daughters with whom to dance. The Elf King’s seductions become increasingly strident; the boy’s fear grows, although the father still thinks he’s imagining things. Finally, when they arrive at their destination, the father finds that the child is dead.

The urgency of the situation is communicated with a quickly pulsating, relentless rhythm in the right hand, presumably representing the galloping horse. There is a sense of great fear as the narrator sets the scene, an effect of musical horror that is carried over when father speaks to his stricken child, and the boy speaks of the supernatural forces haunting him. But when the Elf King himself enters the texture to deliver his sweet, fatal siren’s song (first at 1:32), the tone modulates entirely into an innocent major key. He seems to beckon, entreat. This is not a terrifying monster, but a friendly, avuncular spirit, albeit a creepy one. Although the boy protests, he is simultaneously allured. When the Elf King enters, the furious gallop fades into the background, as if “objective” reality dissolves for a moment. The effect is electrifying: Schubert plays at the ambiguous interstices of dream and reality.

RT writes (in relation to Gretchen am Spinnrade as well):

In both cases, consciousness of the “objective” surroundings (spinning wheel, hoofbeats) recedes as the “subjective” vision grows more vivid. The representation of “inwardness” as it interacts and triumphs over the perception of external reality is the true romantic dimension here, the source of the music’s uncanny power. “Objective” representation, whether of spinning wheels or horses’ hooves, was old hat, esthetically uninteresting in itself; its “subjective” manipulation is the startling new effect, prompted in Schubert’s imagination by those “inward” aspects of the poem to which he was uniquely attentive.  (III, 152)

Schubert’s Rhythmic Genius

It’s fairly mind-boggling to ponder what Franz Schubert managed to accomplish in his scant 31 years of life. As is typically (and tragically) the case, the composer’s music was not fully recognized until years after his death, when later symphonists began to realize the sui generis force of his harmonic language. Rimsky-Korsakov, for instance, acknowledged Schubert’s profound influence on modern harmony, indicating that he was “the first composer in whom one can meet such bold and unexpected modulations” (III, 105). These sentiments are echoed heartily by RT in what is perhaps the book’s most theoretical passage yet (pages 87-113). Although the flat submediant was not new to Schubert, he utilized it to such an electrifying effect as to cement this piquant sound henceforth in the Romantic vocabulary of musical Innigkeit. Rather than simply an approach to the dominant, Schubert uses the flat 6 as a pivot chord to all sorts of far-flung harmonic regions. Further, embedded in this harmony is the interval of the MA3, the implication of which Schubert explored in such depths as to generate some of the earliest examples of blatant whole-tone usage in the Western tradition.

What RT does not discuss in this exceptionally rich passage, however, is Schubert’s brilliant, mercurial rhythmic sensibilities. There are rhythmic passages in Schubert of such a buoyant, playful, and overwhelmingly sophisticated nature as to make one forget the “music trance”-inducing harmonies and just marvel at the sheer rhythmic invention. For example, take the third movement to his 4th “Tragic” Symphony of 1816:

(You can download the score to the movement here. It helps to see what’s going on.) From the second the starting gun goes off, we’re thrown into a deeply ambiguous metric dissonance. The first note sounds like the downbeat of a measure of triple meter: phrases are arranged in symmetrical patterns that correspond to such a reading. But wait. The movement actually starts with a pickup, and for the entire exposition we have to run to catch up. The movement is “off” from the very beginning.

Playing at the edge of this hyper-chromatic unison is an implied 2 against 3; regular syncopations accentuate the underlying duple. Only at select moments does this rhythmic dissonance boil to the surface – for example, at 0:51 (7 measures before the repeat in the score). This eccentric rhythmic gambit structures the whole section. It’s a stunningly original design, and one’s jaw has to drop when we remember that the composer was a lad of 19 when he wrote it. The symphony’s title (“Tragic”), which was given to the work by Schubert himself, is all too apt a word when contemplating everything that this firefly of a composer might have accomplished had he lived as long as Richard Strauss or Stravinsky. Tragic indeed.

Notes on the Ninth

It’s not every day that you hear musicologists speaking on radio talk shows.

NPR’s On Point with Tom Ashbrook did a show on Beethoven’s Ninth yesterday afternoon (with guest music historian Harvey Sachs) that is well worth checking out. Sachs recently published a new book on Beethoven’s controversial masterpiece that goes into some social detail about the 1824 debut of the work and what it meant in the context of the composer’s Vienna, a place that was rapidly turning into, as Sachs puts it, the “first modern police state.” Although Beethoven doesn’t have a lot to say on politics, it’s hard to discuss the “brotherly union” of the Ode to Joy without looking into the political and philosophical underpinnings of the composer’s massive symphony. The work has simply been used for too many purposes over the years to ignore it, a fact highlighted by audio clips from both Hitler’s birthday in 1942 and Bernstein conducting the Berlin phil on the occasion of the destruction of the Wall in 1990. Indeed, the Ninth is a Protean piece that can used to “mean” just about anything.

For all of its canonical power, Beethoven’s final symphony is a deeply ambiguous work. As Maynard Solomon points out in his 1986 article “Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony: A Search for Order,” the composer wanted us to search for grand meanings in his music; however, the codes he employs are simply too heterogeneous to be read in any one way. (This is evinced by the sheer number of explanations provided for the work over the years. It reminds me of what James Joyce said about Finnegans Wake – “I’ve written a book that will keep the scholars guessing for generations.”) The one thing people can agree on is the symphony’s unprecedented scope and extremity of expression, what Solomon calls its “profoundly modernist perspective.” Solomon adds that “Beethoven’s music sought to disrupt,” concluding that the disruptive force of the symphony and its irreconcilable ambiguities have allowed it to mean vastly different things to different people over the years.

Taruskin weighs in on Solomon’s argument in his 1989 article “Resisting the Ninth.” (This unique piece – well, not unique to RT – begins as a record review and spirals into a provocative meditation on the 9th symphony, only to return to the record in question at the end. It’s a tour de force of critical/scholarly amalgamation in the style of his Berkeley colleague Joseph Kerman.) Building on Solomon, RT argues that the “disruption” at the heart of the symphony presents us with something fundamentally dangerous – it promises sublimity and universal brotherhood, and if you believe yourself to be on the side of such Big Ideas (as did Hitler), then it can be used to justify anything. However, neuter the work of this potent danger and you risk neutering everything powerful (and historical) about it. Indeed, some modern conductors white wash the uncomfortable elements of the Ninth by eschewing the fundamental (and subversive) vagueness of the work by specifying every detail. This, in effect, “defangs the beast.” (It also destroys it.)

Solomon’s article can be downloaded here; for the Taruskin, go here.

Wellington’s Victory over Volume II

Accompanied by the rousing flourishes of Beethoven’s oft-maligned Wellington’s Victory, it is with great Freude that we announce the commencement of Volume III! We’re starting into the next volume right as the school year ends (coincidence?), so expect another couple posts on Vol. II as we digest the incredibly rich last couple chapters without the distraction of papers to write and assignments to grade.

I’m somewhat ashamed to admit it, but I’ve never actually heard Wellington’s Victory until now. I’ve heard how awful and un-Beethovenian it is, of course, but I’ve never given it a listen. It’s true, the piece has gotten a bad rap over the years. This is perhaps the most universally mocked piece of the Beethoven oeuvre (and of the whole 19th century); even the usually even-handed (with ironic quotes?) RT describes it as “of a calculated popular appeal,” “noisy,” and a “piece of orchestral claptrap” (II, 672). Indeed, Wellington’s Victory (1813) has become the quintessential reminder that genius composers can produce tripe too.

But are we being fair in this assessment? It’s hard to deny the “noisiness” of the piece, as well as the sappiness of the fugal rendition of “God Save the King” (1:46); this sort of thing sounds like a bad medley for high school band. But Beethoven wasn’t writing his “Battle Symphony” for posterity. Rather, it’s the product of a commission, an unabashed appeal to popularity and the burgeoning market principle, an “early fruit of musical capitalism.” Wellington’s Victory is undeniably a piece of “use” music, in other words; it was not written to be silently contemplated, like his more sublime symphonies, string quartets, and piano sonatas. It is calculated to be a crowd-pleasing spectacle, and on that count, the piece is (and was) a success. Compared to the Ninth, of course Wellington’s Victory leaves a lot to be desired as a piece of “autonomous musical art.” But autonomous musical art this was not.